New Work – (not) everything is new!?


New Work is currently used as an answer to almost every challenge that organizations face today. But is New Work really the solution that solves all or many of the existing problems? And is it really new or, once again, “old wine in new bottles”? A look behind the scenes shows that influencing factors such as digitization and innovation pressure already existed 20 years ago. What is new, however, is the personal responsibility of each employee. And this has implications for culture and leadership.

Anyone currently involved in organizational development will notice that a large number of trends are being discussed that seem to completely turn existing findings and approaches upside down. Agility, ambidexterity, work X.0, … The challenges of organizations to continue operating an economically successful business model in the future, appear to be hardly realizable or only at great expense. With “New Work” everything is then summarized to emphatically document that the working and organizational world of tomorrow has relatively little to do with the status quo.

New Work as a new approach to work organization

“New Work is a trend topic and at the same time a confusing hodgepodge of different measures and principles – they are often introduced to organizations aimlessly and with severe side effects” says Carsten C. Schermuly, who is conducting research at SRH Hochschule Berlin on the psychological empowerment of New Work in particular (Schermuly, 2016). The approach of New Work goes back to Frithjof Bergmann, an Austrian-US-American philosopher. Bergmann has been dealing with the question of human freedom since the early 1980s, explicitly including professional life (Bergmann, 2004). An employee’s entrepreneurial freedom is particularly important as a result of the transition from an industrial to a knowledge society. Classical working structures and forms no longer meet the requirements. Globalization, digitization and innovation pressure represent challenges for many organizations that can only be met with a new understanding of work and employees. Jacob Morgan, one of the leading thinkers on the subject of the future of work, puts it succinctly: “In the Future of Work, late adopter means out of business.” (2014).

To know what you are talking about, the term New Work must first be operationalized. Following Heike Bruch’s approach, the future world of work is characterized by new forms of work, which above all require greater flexibility. Flexibility refers to both an organizational level as well as the personal level of the employee. Bruch highlights eight core elements of New Work (Bruch, Block & Färber, 2016):

1. flexible working hours
2. mobile working
3. desk sharing
4. new working methods
5. virtual teams
6. fluid work
7. digital technologies
8. digital communication

The first two elements in particular show that the boundaries between private and professional life will become even more blurred in the future. Accepting this and assuming the necessary personal responsibility of the employee will be critical in order to successfully implement New Work approaches in an organization.

Demand and reality – how big is the delta?

Many CEO’s believe a change in the world of work is inevitable (Bersin, 2016). However, corporate realities currently look different. Organizations often do not feel well prepared for New Work or are uncertain in dealing with this challenge (AT Kearney, 2016 and Bruch, Block & Färber, 2016): only four percent feel well prepared for change, only three percent already rate themselves as a network company. According to surveys by Heike Bruch et al. (Bruch, Block & Färber, 2016), only 25 percent of organizations are currently on the way to introducing new forms of work, of which only 6 percent consider themselves successful.

The discussion is exciting when one compares the requirements of New Work with the personal expectations of employees in their own career and life planning: On the one hand, the demand and the willingness to work on New Work concepts are signaled. For example, employees want to be more involved in thinking about the workplace of the future and over 60% of all employees demand cultural change (sipgate, 2017). On the other hand, it also becomes clear that employees are increasingly giving up their careers in favor of a “real” work-life balance (ManpowerGroup, 2017). The assumption of more organizational responsibility in the context of management positions does not seem to become more attractive, but actually declines.

If employees cannot cope with the resulting consequences, the implementation of New Work becomes correspondingly difficult. Originally well-intentioned approaches to establishing New Work principles can therefore also have an opposite, negative effect if the expected success does not materialize or employees are even overtaxed and/or dissatisfied. This currently affects around 19 percent of the organizations surveyed (Bruch, Block & Färber, 2016).

Implications for practical application

Why is there such a large delta between demand and reality? Is it more a lack of “will” or rather a lack of “ability”? The fact is that the transformation from strongly hierarchy-oriented organizational structures to network organizations is an enormous step, both from a cultural and a leadership perspective, which, in addition to the necessary condition of the “ability” of all employees, particularly requires the “will” and support of the leaders. This is particularly important because New Work approaches transfer a significantly greater degree of decision-making freedom to employees. In order to successfully shape this development process, change processes must be established which, in addition to technical/content-related responses to the information needs of employees, also eliminate perceived social threats for employees.

What’s new about New Work now? The discussion about the future of work is not as new as it is sometimes claimed (Radkau, 2017). There was already a demand for innovation in the past. Employees in organizations have always been important for the successful implementation of organizational principles. What is definitely new, however, is that employees are given more responsibility and more self-determination as to how and when work is to be done. In addition, with immediate global transparency about new products and/or competitive advantages, the time pressure has also increased dramatically; exerted by globalization and digitization on the further development of organizations and the constant questioning of efficiency and effectiveness by the market.

In addition to organizational/process-related changes, employees must be prepared for this in particular in order to meet this requirement. Otherwise, new work attempts can end very quickly when employees are overstrained, which reduces satisfaction and even increases the economic risk for the entire organization. Overall, testing and piloting new work principles in individual organizational areas will provide the greatest added value for most companies in order to gain experience and keep possible risks under control.